[I started writing essays recently. This was the first. I am distributing them using Constant Contact. You may sign up to receive them "hot off the keyboard" by going to the Northfield website and clicking on the "Join our Free email list" link. I plan to archive the essays here.]
I judged Rally recently. After judging a lot in 2007, this was the first assignment in 2008 for me and the first under the Rally Regulation changes that came into effect in January 2008. In thinking about judging over the past several months, I haven't been sure that I even want to judge all that much. And then, about a month ago, I found out that I would be judging outside. Oh, yippee! Two weeks ago was the all-weekend monsoon rain, and sure enough, I showed outside. Fortunately, just in conformation. But it made me think a lot about how various types of weather might cause difficulties to Rally exhibitors outdoors. Okay, no downs (if judging was in the early morning, the grass would be wet from dew; or worse, there might be puddles somewhere). Use as few sits as possible. Don't do any fasts you don't have to. Judging in the afternoon sun? Have the honor dog do a down stay. It did make for some different course design decisions than judging indoors.
So, to the point of this essay: entering the ring. I've competed in a large variety of dog sports: obedience, conformation, tracking, rally, agility, and hunt tests. In each sport, there is a point at which you "enter the ring" for the judge(s) to start the judging process. That entry is often the first impression the judge has of you and your dog. I can still remember entering the Utility A ring with my first dog, little 10-lb Australian Terrier Casey. I'd take off her leash and the judge would measure her (this was back in the days when judges measured all dogs in Open and Utility). Then we would proceed to the start of the Signal Exercise. But we didn't often proceed as a team. I'd lead and Casey would trail behind, sometimes multiple feet behind, eventually catching up to me. In looking back on those ring entrances, I can't imagine how she would then actually manage to heel with me, but she did. Not brilliantly, but passing.
When judging at my recent Rally assignment, there was generally a direct correlation with how a dog and handler entered the ring and how much of a team they were through the course. The dogs that came in sniffing the grass and needing to be begged to sit at the start (some handlers didn't even bother with a sit, which is allowable in Rally) mostly continued to do so during the course. They weren't a team. Then there were the teams that came in together, with the dog focused on the handler, sitting promptly by the start sign. They mostly proceeded through the course with the same style they would have if we'd been inside on mats.
It all comes down to attention and practice, practice, practice. In my obedience classes, we practice this in several ways. We set up sections of baby gates, and work on going through the opening in the gates and moving varying distances from that opening to a set up spot. Sometimes we use the Racing Game - run from entrance to set up spot. This can energize a lackadaisical dog. Sometimes we turn to the left, sometimes to the right. We also do the Setup Game. I use round rubber disks (PolySpots I bought from Wolverine Supply) that I've numbered from 1-12. I place these in a big square around the training area, usually with at least 12-15 feet in between. Each disk is strategically placed so that you have to set up in a different direction than the previous one. Sometimes you set up in the direction you were already going. Sometimes you need to be 90 degrees to the left or to the right, sometimes 180 degrees around. The goal is to get your dog set up in heel position so that you can read the number on the polyspot right side up. I like to see handlers get their dogs lined up straight before asking for the sit. This takes practice and more practice. It takes the dog paying attention to the handler and the handler planning the best path for their team to set up smoothly. If I need to do a 90 degree left turn on a set up, I often move to the right a few feet before turning left for the setup. When you practice this exercise, figure out which direction produces the best and most efficient setup for you and your dog. Work on the weaker directions, but plan to use the best ones when you are in front of a judge. You can't plan if you don't know which direction produces the best setup.
Agility handlers should be practicing getting to the start line, removing the leash and having their dog on whichever side is best for that particular course. If you have a dog who is highly distracted by the previous team finishing their course, practice your ring entries first by yourself until you and your dog are an efficient team. Then add a person running nearby. Then add a person and a dog running.
Field dogs need to know how to move out of the last holding blind to the line. At the Junior level, this can be on leash, but judges do want to see some control here! My OTCh. Flat-Coated Retriever, Treasure, was a superb heeling dog in the obedience ring. Put her out in a field with guns and birds... forget it! She dragged me to the line, determined to get there as fast as possible. Because I wasn't that serious about my hunt test training at the time, I didn't rehearse the correct behavior for going from holding blind to the line enough in practice for it to be a well-established habit. Again, this takes practice, and a lot of it, under increasingly test-like conditions.
Each time I train one of my dogs, I try to find at least one setup to praise and treat. The setup is a behavior I want to keep sharp and valuable to my dogs, and so every so often, when I get a setup that is particularly quick and smart for that dog, I tell him he's right, sometimes give a treat, sometimes even break off for a game. When I go to a practice match, I again try to reward at least one well-done setup while in the ring. When I'm in a trial, I recognize a good set up with quiet praise.
Whatever your sport, learn what the setups need to be, and practice, practice, practice!
Until next time, happy training!